Michael Totten

The Iranian Revolution Echoes in Egypt

Abbas Milani, like most educated Iranians, detested the Shah’s tyrannical regime that ruled over his homeland until it was overthrown in 1979 by a coalition of liberals, leftists, and Islamists. Unlike the vast majority of the liberals and leftists, however, Milani knew in advance what the Islamists were up to. The Shah had cast him into the dungeon at the notorious Evin Prison and for six months his cell mates were the ideological and physical brutes who later would found the Islamic Republic.

Today Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. His new book The Shah was published a few weeks ago by Palgrave MacMillan. I sat down with him in his office at the Hoover Institution to talk about what’s happening right now in Egypt.

MJT: So why, when you published a piece in The New Republic a few days ago, did you compare the upheaval in Egypt to the Iranian Revolution 31 years ago rather than to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution that toppled Ben Ali less than 31 days ago?

Abbas Milani: Iran and Egypt are very similar. They have been, along with Turkey, the key bellwether states in the region. What happens in these three places has shaped what happens in the Middle East for a hundred years.

Tunisia—in terms of size, history, and trajectory—is far less like Iran than Egypt is. Egypt is the most important center of Sunni learning while Iran is the most important center of Shia learning. And the two countries have been very much in competition with each other for hegemony over the Islamic world. The Shah spent his last days in Egypt. There is a fifty year connection between the Pahlavi dynasty and Egypt.

Abbas Milani

Look also at the events themselves and the way the United States has tried to position itself. What’s going on right now in Egypt is eerily reminiscent of the events in Iran in 1979. The United States supported Pahlavi and Mubarak overtly. In both cases there was behind-the-scenes pressure to democratize and open the system. The Shah resisted, claiming a communist threat. Mubarak resisted, claiming a Muslim Brotherhood threat.

After a while the Shah became impervious to American pressure because he had oil money. He had more money than he knew what to do with. During those very crucial years the Iranian middle class mushroomed. The educated class was increasing. These were the years when pressure for democracy was most urgent, but the Shah was impervious to it.

MJT: How big was the middle class in 1979?

Abbas Milani: It depends on how you define it. If you look at the income, the amount of urbanization, the number of educated people, the number of people who lived in their own domicile, the number of people who could travel outside the country—all these grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the push for industrialization that began in the early 1960s. It began before the oil money came in.

We had a class of brilliant Iranian technocrats, many of them educated in the United States, including right here at Stanford. They put into effect a remarkable process of industrialization that by 1970 was bearing fruit. These people demanded political rights, and the Shah, instead of opening the country, clamped down with the one-party system.

I am absolutely convinced that in 1975, when he was at the height of his power, if the Shah had made just a third of the concessions he later made in 1978, we would be looking at a very different Iran today.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi

MJT: It was too late in 1978.

Abbas Milani: What Mubarak and the Shah both failed to understand is that if you make concessions when you’re weak it just increases the appetite for more concessions. If they would have made concessions when they were in a position of power, they could have negotiated a smooth transition to a less authoritarian government.

In Egypt, when the US pressured Mubarak to announce that he would not run again, that he should come out publicly and say he has cancer and that there will be a free election soon, he instead tried to create a monarchy.

Hosni Mubarak

MJT: He wants his son to succeed him.

Abbas Milani: The reverse happened to the Shah. He also had cancer, but he hid it from everybody. He had a son who was then eighteen years old. If he had given up the throne and created a regency in 1977, as some had advised him to do, instead of making concessions under pressure in 1978 when all hell was breaking loose, I could easily imagine a different Iran.

I went back to Iran from the United States in 1975. I had just gotten my PhD and was part of the opposition to the Shah. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that change was coming, but Islamic revolution was absolutely not inevitable. This was partly the Shah’s fault for only allowing the clergy to organize. Not to give him credit, but in context this was the Cold War. Everybody was worried about communism, and he completely clamped down on everyone but the clergy.

In my book about the Shah I chronicle a very interesting period in 1973.

The oil money was coming in. He was beginning to reach the height of his power, and he was starting to worry about succession and the political process. He brought in one of Iran’s most respected technocrats and told him to create a viable political party. They worked for six months establishing the parameters of this political party. We have the minutes from their discussions. And then, just as the party is about to take shape with ten of the best technocrats lined up as the founders, all of a sudden the price of oil quadrupled. The Shah then pulled the plug on this party.

Mubarak keeps missing these moments. If he would have announced last week that he was not going to run, one can imagine a different trajectory. These things catch like wildfire.

MJT: Right. No intelligence agency can see events like this coming. They’re spontaneous. None of these people knew they’d be in the streets a month ago, so how could anyone else know?

Abbas Milani: They couldn’t imagine it.

MJT: Mubarak couldn’t imagine it either.

Abbas Milani: But what I think they could have imagined, and should have imagined, is precisely this: in today’s day and age when people are connected with the Internet, satellites, Al Jazeera, and CNN, you cannot rest your stability on fear. Governments could do this in Stalin’s time, but today, at any moment, the fear can dissipate.

Six months before the June uprising in Iran I wrote an article about the coalition that became the Green Movement. I said it was already in existence and ready to challenge the regime. But even I didn’t predict that three million people would come out into the streets overnight. I can tell you right now, though, that the minute people in Iran believe that the apparatus of terror has lost its capacity to terrorize people, we will see another three million.

MJT: For a total of six million, you mean?

The June uprising in Iran

Abbas Milani: Yes, absolutely. We will see six million people. Overnight. We will see a huge outpouring of protest because people resent the fact that they are oppressed. Governments can no longer rely on fear alone. It’s much easier now to break through it than it used to be.

MJT: Jimmy Carter often gets blamed for Khomeini coming to power in Iran. Do you think that’s fair? What could he have done to stop it?

Abbas Milani: I don’t blame the revolution on Jimmy Carter, but I think he does bear some responsibility. He could not develop a cohesive policy. He wasn’t paying attention to Iran. He was preoccupied with Camp David. He couldn’t bring Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski into a cohesive position. He kept vacillating from one extreme to another. This only exacerbated the American inability to understand what was going on.

The failure to understand what was going on dates back to the Lyndon Johnson years. The Johnson administration succumbed to pressure from the Shah to cease all contact with the opposition inside Iran. The US remarkably even agreed not to contact a former prime minister because the Shah didn’t trust him. The Shah even created a diplomatic row when a former Iranian ambassador was invited to a party. Not to a secret meeting, but to a party.

Because the US was involved in Vietnam and had listening centers in Iran monitoring Soviet activities, and because Iran was flush with cash in 1972 and was willing to sign contracts with American companies, the US agreed to cease contact. Yet the CIA predicted an Iranian revolution as early as 1958. And what they said would happen is almost exactly what happened. They said Iran’s rising technocratic class, the teachers, and the new urbanites are all disgruntled and that if the government doesn’t open up the system they’ll find any leader they can and topple the Shah.

The Kennedy administration pressured the Shah to make changes that were based on the standard modernization theory. You modernize the infrastructure, you educate the people, you create a better economy, and you open up the system politically. Kennedy pushed the Shah toward this and the Shah complied. He himself wanted to make changes. He wanted to make Iran a better place. The Kennedys hated the Shah. Bobby Kennedy absolutely despised him. John Kennedy disliked him, if not outright hated him.

But just as the economic changes were bearing fruit, making political change more necessary, the oil price shot up. Nixon came in and made the decision to cease pressuring the Shah. The Shah had stopped listening anyway because he had all the money he needed.

Carter came in and renewed the pressure for democratization, but he renewed it at the worst possible time, when the economy was diving. Iran was borrowing money that year. The Shah went from giving away a billion and a half dollars to borrowing 700 million from Chase Manhattan. So the economy was diving, the Shah’s health was deteriorating, and suddenly the suppressed opposition felt that the Shah was fair game because Carter was talking about human rights.

MJT: But what should Carter have done instead? Are you saying he was he wrong to talk about human rights?

Abbas Milani: No, he should have talked about human rights, but he also should have understood that you have to go step by step. Concessions need to be made in a timely fashion from a position of power. Carter should have made it clear that he was for change, but not for change at any price. Brzezinski understood this much better than anyone else in the administration but didn’t get his way. And on the other side we had the Shah undergoing chemotherapy and his endogenous paranoia, depression, indecisiveness and vacillation. The result was disaster.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

And lurking around the corner was Khomeini who cleverly understood what the Americans wanted. The Americans wanted a more responsive democratic government, and Khomeini promised it to them. I have found evidence of his contacting Americans.

MJT: Who in the US did he contact?

Abbas Milani: The American Embassy in Paris. He also sent a letter to Carter. His allies in Tehran were also in contact with the American Embassy. They were saying Khomeini was not as bad as the Shah was making him out to be. All of them were helped by Iranian intellectuals who have a great responsibility in all this.

MJT: What did you think about Khomeini at the time?

Abbas Milani: I was an opponent of the Shah. I spent a year in prison. For six months I was in Evin Prison. The future leaders of the Islamic Republic were my cellmates.

MJT: You knew these guys?

Abbas Milani: I knew all of them. I spent six months with them. I knew they were bad news. I knew that what they were going to deliver was not democracy.

But most people had never read any of Khomeini’s writings because they were banned. The Shah, instead of making them mandatory reading, banned them. In the 1960s and 70s Khomeini had already talked about almost everything he did. Even in 1944 he talked about how evil democracy and modernity are, how evil the rule of law is. He talked about the establishment of Velayat-e faqih, the rule of Islamic jurists. These books could have been an absolutely clear indication of where his regime would go, but they were banned. Even those who were willing, like me, to actually read this stuff, we dismissed it because we were under the Age of Enlightenment illusion that religion is the opiate of the masses and that there is an inverse correlation between reason and science on the one hand and religion on the other. We believed that Iran was too advanced for these ideas.

Tehran, Iran

If you had told me in 1978 that the government would soon stone women to death for adultery, I would have laughed at you. If you had told me in 1978 that we were going to have a government where one man, Khomeini, is going to claim that he’s receiving divine guidance, that his legitimacy comes from God, I would have laughed at you. Nobody took these guys seriously.

The SAVAK was putting down everybody while actually encouraging the clergy. I have found remarkable statistics about the number of mosques built in Iran during the last decade of the Shah’s rule. He thought they were the antidote to communism. When the Americans saw the crisis, and when the British saw the crisis, they looked around and the only force that seemed capable of holding the country together and keeping the Soviets out and delivering some modicum of democracy was the clergy.

Khomeini played it brilliantly. He hid his real intentions during the last 118 days of his exile when he was under the glare of the international media.

MJT: He knew his ideas were unpopular in Iran.

Abbas Milani: Absolutely.

MJT: Otherwise he wouldn’t have pretended to be something else.

Abbas Milani: Not once in those entire 118 days before his return to Iran did he mention the words Velayat-e faqih.

France gave him a visa in consultation with the Shah. The Shah believed that if Khomeini went to Paris [from exile in Iraq] that people would see what this guy was really about and would be frightened. But the media never asked him any tough questions. They hadn’t read his books. And he completely hid his intentions.

And to lay blame where blame must laid, some Iranian intellectuals had begun to flirt with the clergy. They were propagating the idea that the clergy were on the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle. One of the most influential intellectuals of the 1960s, a man named Jalal Al-Ahmad, tried to rehabilitate the clergy and marched against the Enlightenment mentality. He was a secular leftist with social democratic leanings, but he wrote an embarrassingly shallow but very influential treatise called Westoxication. He lambasted the West and liberal democrats who supported Western democracy. And he said that we, the intellectuals he thought he represented, had been wrong by looking at the clergy as reactionaries. He said they were profoundly revolutionary and at the forefront of the struggle.

MJT: So what happened to him after 1979?

Abbas Milani: He died in 1968.

MJT: People like him didn’t do well in Iran after 1979.

Abbas Milani: His brother tried to use his name and the social capital that came with it. The government gave him a job after 1979, but when Khomeini began to consolidate power they threw him out and marginalized him. Many people who followed him were murdered by the regime, even those who facilitated the rise of the regime by making the argument I just told you about. They lost life, limb, and liberty during Khomeini’s march to absolute power.

MJT: How do you suppose things might have gone differently if the average person in Iran knew Khomeini’s agenda from the very beginning?

Abbas Milani: He wouldn’t have had one chance in a million.

MJT: Really?

Abbas Milani: Absolutely. Maybe 70 or 80 percent of the people at the time found him appealing, but his ideas were hidden. Nobody knew. In Paris he said he wouldn’t take any position in the government. He said no cleric would have any position in power. This is what he promised. The first draft of the constitution had no mention, none, of Velayat-e faqih. Iran was to be a republic with a Rousseauian social contract.

The demands of the movement were clearly democratic. Khomeini was popular under false pretenses and because he stood up to the Shah. He stood up to the Americans when the US demanded a Status of Forces Agreement in 1963 before sending advisors. He made his name by opposing that SOFA. He was in exile for fourteen years and refused to compromise on anything. He looked like the defiant loner who called for the overthrow of the Shah even before it was popular.

In Shia Islam there are two schools. One is the quietest school. Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani is a quietest. The other is Khomeini’s. Khomeini’s version has always been a very very small minority. In Paris he pretended to be a Sistani, but in Tehran he realized he could impose his maximalist program. He had a minimalist program and a maximalist program. He started by saying society should be Islamic in a very general sense but that he wouldn’t seize political power. He changed when he got to Iran, and he used the occupation of the American Embassy and the war with Iraq as essential tools for getting rid of the liberals who had provided him cover, who had convinced the Americans that he would deliver democracy.

There is an inherent contradiction between liberal democracy and Khomeini’s interpretation of Islam. You cannot be a democrat of any persuasion if you believe that rule belongs to a person chosen by God and that that person, who is always a man, must not be responsive to the people but is judged instead by somebody up in the heavens. That is the current version of Islam as propagated by Khomeini. In their honest and rare moments, they even admit it.

They changed the constitution in 1988. It no longer says Velayat-e faqih, the rule of Islamic jurists, but the absolute rule of the jurist council. They tightened the screws even more. Khomeini said, and Khamenei repeats this ad nauseum, that if the ruling faqih issues a fatwa, even a fundamental principle of Islam can be suspended. Khomeini said that if he says the hajj is not required that year, it will be suspended. That’s how absolute his claim was. And of course that’s undemocratic.

MJT: It’s also un-Islamic.

Abbas Milani: Yes, it’s both. Absolutely.

MJT: What if he issued a fatwa saying Mohammad is no longer the final prophet?

Abbas Milani: That’s why the majority of the Shia clergy are opposed to him. For precisely the reason you said. They say Khomeini’s regime is heresy.

MJT: And it is.

Abbas Milani: Khomeini said he came to power to implement Sharia. Then he claimed that Sharia is the tool to ensure his own rule. He said he could play with Sharia as he saw fit. It’s a remarkably audacious claim. That’s why they have to steal elections. They can’t win any elections.

MJT: I find this very disturbing. Iran in the 1970s—and I guess today, too—was much more liberal and modern than Egypt.

Abbas Milani: Oh, absolutely.

MJT: And yet Iran got this government. If it can happen in Iran, it can certainly happen in Egypt where the middle class is very small and people are not nearly as well educated.

Abbas Milani: And there are a lot more Islamists, and they are much better organized.

MJT: The liberals in Egypt are, what, ten percent of the population?

Abbas Milani: I’m not sure about that, but I do know something about the Muslim Brotherhood.

MJT: Okay, so what do you know?

Abbas Milani: They are extremely well organized.

MJT: Are they moderate? Many experts are saying so now, but I’m skeptical.

Abbas Milani: There are moderate elements within the Muslim Brotherhood. But if the Muslim Brotherhood still stands behind Sayyid Qutb, then no. He, along with Hassan al Banna, was one of its founding fathers. You should read him. He was absolutely uncompromising.

Sayyid Qutb, Islamic theologian for the Muslim Brotherhood and intellectual godfather of Al Qaeda's ideology

MJT: What about the guys running it now? There is all this talk about how they’re no longer as dangerous as they used to be, that they’ve renounced violence and want a democracy. I don’t really buy it, but some people insist this is the case, that the Muslim Brothers have gone mainstream and we have nothing to worry about.

Abbas Milani: I don’t know the Egyptian scene as well as Iran, so let’s look at the Iranian case. If you look at the whole Islamic movement you can see that there were moderate forces in the early part. There were quietist ayatollahs who took part in the revolution, including some who were senior to Khomeini in clerical status. They had an enormous popular base. They were truly moderate and they truly understood the dangers of Khomeini.

Within this movement was also Fadayan-e Islam, the Islamic terrorist group founded by Navvab Safavi who was very much enamored of the Muslim Brotherhood. He even met with Sayyid Qutb. If you look at how this vast network, that included moderates and radicals, evolved once the revolution came, it was the radicals who won. Because they were the most ruthless. They were the most brutal.

Everything I’ve seen indicates that there are moderate Muslim Brothers, but if the society goes into a protracted struggle, I have no doubt that the radicals would win.

Almost every radical group in the Middle East is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

MJT: All the Sunni Islamist groups are, right? I mean, are there any that aren’t?

Abbas Milani: Here’s an interesting fact. Three of the major works that Khamenei translated before the revolution were written by Sayyid Qutb. That’s how much cross-sectarian pollination there is.

In 1975 I took a group of students on a tour of Iran as a professor.

Masouleh, Iran

Half of them were leftists and half were Islamists. All were opponents of the Shah, as was I. When the tour ended the Islamist students gave me two of Qutb’s books as a gift. I had never heard the name before, but my eyes were opened to this incredible world that was lurking there in Iranian society. It was right in front of everyone’s eyes, but nobody was watching.

SAVAK was obsessed with the left, and the intellectuals were obsessed with themselves. They thought they were the only game in town. If you look at the intellectual critical discourse in Iran, almost nothing was written about the Islamists. Almost nothing. I worry that the same thing might be happening in Egypt.

MJT: You’ve looked closely at mistakes the United States made in the 1970s in Iran. Based on that, what would you say to President Obama if he asked you what he should do about Egypt?

Cairo, Egypt

Abbas Milani: I would tell him he has to make it absolutely clear where he stands. He has to make it clear that he supports a peaceful and gradual democratic transition. He has to make it very clear to the Egyptian people that the US has, in fact, been pushing for this behind the scenes.

There is a whole subtext to American foreign policy, what happens behind the scenes, that very few people pay any attention to. When you look at Wikileaks you can see a lot of very interesting work behind the scenes that isn’t getting reported.

In the case of Iran, I can say with some certainty that the US consistently, with the exception of the Nixon era, pushed for more openness in the system. The Americans were telling the Shah that he was getting himself into serious trouble. They weren’t picking a fight with him publicly, just as they weren’t with Mubarak. But even in the case of Mubarak, the Americans pushed. Condoleeza Rice gave a remarkable speech in Cairo. But then they backed down because Mubarak pushed back. Mubarak held an election.

MJT: And he gave the Muslim Brotherhood 20 percent, or however much it was.

Abbas Milani: Yeah. And he said, look, do you want these guys to take over?

I would say to President Obama that he must make it clear to Mr. Mubarak that he must clearly and categorically say he won’t run again and that his son won’t run, that he will turn over the daily affairs of the state to a coalition of opposition parties. There might be a chance for a gradual transition and the absorption of the elements of the Muslim Brotherhood that really are moderate.

If this doesn’t happen, if Egypt goes into a protracted period of lawlessness, or if there is a Balkanization of the society, Mubarak will do a tremendous disservice to Egypt, to democracy, and to the United States. He’s going to put the United States in a very difficult situation.

The most important lesson that needs to be learned is that the United States must push its allies to make concessions when they are in a position of power, not when they are in peril.

The majority in Turkey, Egypt, and Iran once accepted the notion that enlightenment, democracy, modernity, reason, and the rule of law were good things, that the West has used these things to good purpose, and that we in the Muslim world should find our own iteration of them and catch up. Now the radical fringe is much stronger and directly challenges this. They say they do not want reason, they want revolution. They don’t want laws, they have the Koran. They don’t want equality because the Koran says there is inequality and they abide by the Koran. They say they don’t want democracy, that it’s a trick of the colonial Crusaders.

Thirty years ago people laughed at these ideas. Now they’re being said more and more often and openly. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins, or if Egypt becomes democratic…

MJT: It’s a big deal either way, isn’t it?

Abbas Milani: It is. Because it is Egypt.

Abbas Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. His new book The Shah was published a few weeks ago by Palgrave MacMillan.


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